The Alaskan landscape overwhelms and almost steals the show in Frank Hall Green’s “Wildlike,” a coming-of-age drama that provides showcase roles for up-and-coming talent, a journeyman actor, and an underappreciated veteran ripe for recognition. What else can you ask of indie movies?
MacKenzie (Ella Purnell) is a teenage girl whose physical beauty makes her look older than her years - her actual age is a late revelation that works as salt in a wound -. When we meet her, she is traveling alone by plane to Juneau. She is bound to spend some undefined time with an uncle (Brian Geraghty), the only relative who can take care of her. Her father has died, and her mother is confined in a mental health facility. Her piercing loneliness rends her almost mute.
The uncle comes off as a sweet lunk, visibly baffled at how to care for a teenage girl. He takes her out to have dinner at late father’s favorite joint, to accompany him to work at his office, and to watch sports with his friend. He gifts her a cell phone. This being a movie from 2014, it’s a chunky black brick whose most important feature is the messaging app, which will play a pivotal role as the plot develops - nothing dates a movie more than technological gadgets!
Exile to the North: grieving teen Mackenzie into a life-changing summer in "Wildlike" / Photo courtesy of Greenmachine Film.
As you settle down for a heartwarming family drama about a bachelor who learns to share his life, turning into a father figure for a virtual orphan, the movie throws you a curve. It's an awful curve. One night, the good old Uncle sneaks into MacKenzie's room and sexually assaults her. The event is as subtly portrayed as these things go, but you get the terror she experiments. To freeze up seems the only way to react.
Writer-Director Frank Hall Green is very wise at portraying how this sexual crime changes the relationship between the characters. The Uncle, once he asserts his power and satisfies his desires, seems more comfortable in his skin and “knows” how to interact with McKenzie. He becomes flirty and assertive, even speaking as a boyfriend would - “Yes, we can get a dog!” -. He treats her as a romantic companion, even if he subjected her to sexual - and incestuous - violence. You also get how a young girl, barely developing social skills, is forced by circumstance into a mock “adult” relationship.
At this point, the movie takes a turn. While visiting a natural reserve, MacKenzie seizes the chance to escape. She does not have a plan, except for the desire to return to Seattle - the little money she has, she took from the abusing Uncle's cupboard. She ignores his incessant messages on the phone - the gift was just an instrument to exert control -. Looking for a place to crash, she sneaks into a motel room she thinks is empty. When a man enters, she barely has time to slip under the bed. He is Barth (Bruce Underwood), a backpacker trying to get a good night's sleep before trekking through Denali Park. They scare each other before Mackenzie manages to escape.
Uncle Groomer: Geragthy goes from dweeb to predator in "Wildlike" / Photo courtesy of Greenmachine Film.
Desperate for a break, she sneaks into another hotel and talks Tommy (Nolan Gerard Funk), a young backpacker, into letting her rest in his room and take a shower. She hints at the possibility of exchanging sex for meager, temporal protection. A twist of chance prevents her from acting up on her offer. To this point, “Wildlike” is a cautionary tale about how young people can fall into a precarious estate of abandonment that can lead to a rough life. You feel for MacKenzie and look upon her path with horror and apprehension. We are primed to recoil at the next encounter.
Again, she crosses paths with Barth and ends up tagging along in his adventure in nature. This is a good example of how important casting is. When you see Greenwood, you know Mackenzie is safe with him, even if she cannot see it. One rainy night in the tent, she tries to initiate a sexual encounter, and he blocks it with the stern demeanor of an adult scolding a child.
Greenwood is an old-school journeyman actor in the best sense of the word. He is currently enjoying the attention that a high-profile streaming series brings. He took over the role vacated by Frank Langella in Mark Flanagan’s series “The Fall Of The House Of Usher” after the veteran actor was dismissed under accusations of sexual harassment. Despite the age difference, it is not surprising that they reached out to him. Greenwood cuts a versatile, malleable presence. He can play young and old, good and evil, and every iteration. He is equally adept at anchoring a syndicated TV episodical - “Nowhere Man” (1995) -, giving some grit to an Art House classic - “The Sweet Hereafter” (Atom Egoyan, 1997) -, playing a historical figure with panache - JFK in “Thirteen Days” (Roger Donaldson, 2000) -, of ham it up for a franchise - “Star Trek” (2009). The thing with Greenwood is he is a transparent performer. You know who he is the moment he presents himself in a role.
The father figure we find along the way: Greenwood protects Purnell in "Wildlike" / Photo courtesy of Greenmachine Film.
That’s exactly what is needed in “Wildlike.” Once the vulnerability of Mackenzie has been established, we ache for her to find a safe harbor. This is what Barth represents, even if he resists the role at first. After all, he is a responsible adult and knows what it looks like to be a mature man traveling around with such a young girl. It’s only a matter of time before she tries to commit him to help her, the only way she knows how - the pathological way imposed in her psyche by her uncle’s abuse. Barth pushes her off and re-establishes the boundaries of the relationship. They bond over their grief. She misses her dead father; he is backpacking through the places he visited during his honeymoon with his recently deceased wife.
With ethical boundaries set, the trip through nature takes center stage; the movie falls into a rut. For all the beauty of the environs, there is something superficial in how the camera registers it. Sure, it’s nice. An encounter with a kite-flying group of campers is dramatically inert, missing out on the potential of Ann Dowd - Aunt Lydia from “The Handmaid’s Tale” -. Will they sniff out something iffy in the dynamic of the pair? Will they call the police? Well, no. The encounters are dramatized to push Barth over his doubts and contact Mackenzie, his “niece.”
Don't run if you see a bear: Purnell and Greenwood put surviving techniques to the test in "Wildlike" / Photo courtesy of Greenmachine Film.
When the movie slacks, Ella Purnell keeps it compelling. By now, she is better known for her role as Jackie, the doomed Alpha Girl in Showtime’s cult series “Yellowjackets.” Here, she can play all the notes of knowingness and immaturity, both steely and vulnerable. And for any movie buff alive in the ‘90s, she is alarmingly similar to Robin Tunney (Empire Records, The Craft). She was everywhere back then! Can anybody cast them as mother and daughter? Sisters? Anything!
Before Aunt Lydia: Ann Dowd is wasted in a bland cameo in "Wildlike" / Photo courtesy of Greenmachine Film.
“Wildlike” picks up towards the end, as it muddies the extremes Barth will go to protect Mackenzie. You can forgive Hall Greene’s dramatic missteps in the wild thanks to a final act that tells you everything and nothing. It’s quite a way to go. Come for the great outdoors, stay for the intimate portrait of families lost and found. Stream it now on Popflick, the best source for independent films online.
* If you or someone you know suffers from sexual assault and needs help, reach out to RAINN's National Sexual Assault Hotline, providing support and confidentiality. Chat online at <online.rainn.org> or call 1-800-656-4673.
Fourteen-year-old Mackenzie, a troubled teen, is sent by her mother to live with her uncle in Juneau, Alaska. She runs away and an unlikely friendship forms in the Alaskan wilderness, giving a runaway girl hope and sanctuary in America's last frontier.Stream Now
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